ALL ACROSS NORTH AMERICA in November 1998, people were waiting for their ship to come in, and all across North America people began to wonder if it would. At the headquarters of Eddie Bauer, they were wondering what had happened to the 1,583 boxes of cotton dresses they'd ordered from Sri Lanka. At Azuma Foods, they wondered what fate had befallen 940 cartons of seafood packed inside refrigerated containers known as "reefers." And at Collezione Europa, a furniture importer in Englewood, New Jersey, people were wondering about a 40-foot container carrying 237 tables from the Philippines. Most worried of all, perhaps, were executives at Toshiba, who were waiting for nine containers of cordless phones, $4.2 million worth. The ship all these people were awaiting was the APL China, at the time one of the largest container ships plying the seas and, so far as marine engineers were concerned, one of the safest.
What made the people at Collezione Europa worry was a fax they'd received on November 2 from the headquarters of APL (formerly American President Lines), which was owned by a company in Singapore. "Please be advised that the APL China v. 030 has been delayed due to severe weather encountered enroute to Seattle," the fax read. As the days unfolded, even more worrisome messages went out, like the one that reached a California freight forwarder regarding two containers of clothing that the company was having shipped from Palau. "Both containers have gone overboard," it reported.
The China had staggered into port in Seattle on November 1. It was a bluebird day, the sun bright and sparkly on the water of Puget Sound. A container ship crossing a harbor on such a day, passing among fishing boats and yachts with the imperturbable majesty of a zeppelin among gulls, is a beautiful sight beautiful and cheerful, like an illustration in a picture book: the blue water, the black hull, the red and blue stripes painted around the base of the smokestack, the white outspread wings of the bridge rising over containers arranged like giant Legos into harlequin stacks as if by some infantile god. The sight of such a ship on such a day suggests that human ingenuity has succeeded in taming the sea, turning Melville's "watery wilderness" into so many watery highways, along which freighters travel as routinely as 18-wheelers travel the roads.
Seattle longshoreman Rich Austin was dispatched to the China salvage operation that day. As he drove into port, the sight wasn't picturesque at all; it was, he remembers, "ominous." If the China's containers were the playthings of an infantile god, then somewhere on the Pacific that god had thrown one hell of a tantrum. From bow to stern, stacks of containers had toppled like dominoes, some to starboard, some to port. Some containers were crumpled up like wads of aluminum foil, others were pancaked flat. One of the China's 62 cargo bays gaped like a missing tooth; an entire row of containers, stacked six high and 16 across, had been swept away.
The China was a C-11-class post-Panamax ship, meaning that at 906 feet long and 131 feet wide it was too big for the locks of the Panama Canal. Standing on a dock beside it, you would have felt as though you were standing at the foot of an unnaturally smooth cliff, a palisade of steel. The carrying capacity of a container ship is measured in TEU, or "twenty-foot-equivalent units," because a standard shipping container is 20 feet long. One 20-footer equals one TEU. The China had a carrying capacity of 4,832 TEU.
Imagine a train pulling 4,832 boxcars: It would stretch for 19 miles, from the southern tip of Manhattan up into Westchester. If Noah had gone to sea in the APL China instead of his ark, each of his 4,832 containers could have accommodated hundreds of thousands of insects, tens of thousands of frogs plague in a box. A 20-footer could comfortably house six horses or two elephants. If he had wanted to, Noah could have squeezed a pair of gray whales into two 40-footers like the one Collezione Europa was waiting for. He might not have been able to fit every species on earth on the China, but he could have come close. And if his luck had been as bad as that of Parvez Guard, captain of the China, many of those animals would have been lost at sea. (The whales, at least, might have survived.)